LeBron James caused a stir last week before the All-Star break when he revealed his NBA Mount Rushmore and suggested a place be carved for him after he retires. James’ list included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson and eventually, through addition or subtraction, LeBron James.
The backlash was quick and predictable. When you include four players in the league’s rich history, great players are bound to be excluded along the way. And when you have the audacity to include yourself among the all-time greats in the prime of your career, many more are going to tee off.
Former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, who led the Celts to 11 championships, was noticeably absent from James’ list. The 80-year-old wasted little time before putting the young superstar his proper place, which in this case meant over Russell’s knee.
“Hey, thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore,” Russell told James, via sideline reporter Craig Sager. “I’m glad you did. Basketball is a team game. It’s not for individual honors. I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college.
“I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship in my last year, and nine in between. That, Mr. James, is etched in stone.”
James should have known better than to get caught up in a petty dispute, but Russell’s response was worse. It was weakened when he said “I won” rather than “we won.” With that he failed to validate the very argument that it was all about the team.
Kobe Bryant added his two cents and inserted Russell for Robertson, the only player in history to average a triple-double for his career. The “Big O” told Fox Sports Daybreak, while not responding to being left off Bryant’s list, that he had no problem with LeBron. He said James was “on the bubble” at this stage of his career.
“It’s just what LeBron thinks,” Robertson told Andy Furman and Mike North. “Now, if you ask Jerry West, he would have some players to go up there. … This is what makes all sports great. This is what the world’s all about.”
In sports, it’s about … arguing.
The issue to me isn’t whether Russell or Robertson belongs, but whether we should compare players to presidents in the first place. After all, it seems silly to put presidents in the same context as players. You don’t hear Harvard historians saying George Washington was the Babe Ruth of the White House, for example.
I guess a case could be made, in a creepy way, that Bill Clinton was the Tiger Woods of the Oval Office. And we certainly could say that LeBron James performed better in his first five years than Lyndon Baines Johnson did in his first five, giving one LBJ an advantage over the other.
Where is this going?
We’re drawing parallels between leaders of the free world and leaders of unrestricted free agency. We’re erecting statues of Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Doug Flutie, Payne Stewart and Bobby Orr when only one sports-related statue, that of Pat Tillman, makes sense. Sports have taken over America and infiltrated American history.
Every time you turn around these days, sports junkies – and sportswriters – are coming up with imaginary Mount Rushmores for everything.
Just last week, on the “Bucky & Sully Show,” New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro had a hard time including Derek Jeter on the same mountain with Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Vaccaro had Jeter two spots away behind Yogi Berra, who won more World Series than Jeter did.
Time alters our perception of history. Would Ruth have been Ruth in today’s game when hitting against deeper pitching staffs and more relievers? Would LeBron have averaged 50 points per game the way Wilt did if he played in the 1961-62 season? Would Sidney Crosby break Gretzky’s records if opponents provided the space granted to the Great One?
It’s difficult enough to compare players from different eras, let alone players and presidents. Earvin “Magic” Johnson couldn’t have solved the Cuban missile crisis any more than John F. Kennedy could make a baby hook in the lane with the game on the line. Let’s agree that both came through in the clutch.
And that’s brings me back to how we view Mount Rushmore, which has been a source of discontent among Native Americans since the site was taken from them during the Great Sioux War of 1876. No problem here with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They’re as solid as Jordan on the mountain.
Thomas Jefferson, when he wasn’t writing up the Declaration of Independence and running the country, was a slave owner. Does he belong? History books tell us Theodore Roosevelt was a great man, but he wasn’t even the best President Roosevelt. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a longer career and the biggest win of anyone.
In fact, there’s no argument.